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Simplified risk paradigm (top) and conceptual model (bottom) relating aging-related sources and stressors to ecological effects. A Framework for Research on the Impacts of an Aging Society on Ecology and Environmental Quality

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Simplified risk paradigm (top) and conceptual model (bottom) relating aging-related sources and stressors to ecological effects.

A Framework for Research on the Impacts of an Aging Society on Ecology and Environmental Quality

P. Bradley, W. Munns, J. Orme-Zaveleta, A. Geller, L. Jackson1, B. Smith, D. Bauer2, B. van Akkeren3

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Research and Development, 1NHEERL, 2NCER;3OPEI

Impact and Outcomes



Science Question

  • Research on the environmental impact of the older adult sub-population will contribute to balancing social, economic, health and ecological needs in a sustainable manner.
  • Environmental research that considers ecology, human health, socio-economics and other scientific disciplines in a comprehensive, integrated manner will lead to more comprehensive environmental protection.
  • This data will aid in reconciling future development with the ecological carrying capacity of the United States.

EPA/ORD Workshop:

Aging Americans: Impacts on Ecology and Environmental Quality August 10-12, 2004

  • This Workshop drew on professionals in the fields of aging, demographics, health, and the environment.
  • It provided ORD with information on aging demographics and the impacts of an aging population on natural resources and the environment.
  • Participants also discussed potential research directions for ORD in this research area.

A peer-reviewed workshop proceedings is being developed. The following background material, recommended methods, and recommended research directions are from the Workshop

As the population ages, how will changes in, e.g., housing, recreation, transportation needs, waste handling and health care requirements affect natural resource utilization, land-use planning, and environmental quality, and how will these interact with human health?

What are the environmental stressors associated with retirement in-place versus relocation to communities at the far edges of existing communities, expanding into rural areas and otherwise pristine areas?

Research should adhere to the following tenets:

  • Be multi-disciplinary and interdisciplinary to integrate ecological, human health, economics, and other aspects of the issues.
    • This includes: natural scientists, ecologists, and engineers, sociologists, economists, gerontologists, demographers, behaviorists, planners, social marketers, and other disciplines that interact with aging populations.
    • Necessary partnerships:

- Local, state, federal agencies - Private sector

- Aging community stakeholders - Universities - NGOs

    • Focus at a scale smaller than an EPA Region, but large enough to consider the cumulative impact of multiple local decisions.
  • Use the Case Study or Demonstration Project approach to investigate the effects of an aging population on the environment.
    • Document the process used in these projects so that it can be transferred to other areas or regions with similar issues.
    • ORD should partner with EPA Regions for:

- Process development

- Facilitation of interactions and communications with stakeholders

- Implementation of appropriate policies and management actions emerging from the process

  • Impacts from the aging society are expected to vary regionally.
    • EPA-sponsored research to characterize this variability will need to capture consumption, waste, transportation, medical needs, and lifestyle patterns by cohort and geographic area and to overlay aging population demographic data on an eco-regional base layer.
  • Research is also needed to identify built-community planning practices that will minimize environmental stressors and enhance health promotion and the quality of life for different segments of the aging population.


Future Directions

There is broad agreement that:

  • Humans are part of, not separate from, the ecosystem.
  • Elder-friendly designs and smart growth benefit everyone – not just seniors.
  • Quality of life does not depend on large resource use.
  • The ecological effects of the aging population may not be completely separable from effects associated with the general population.

EPA should consider the following research :

  • Collate existing research and data on the effects of an aging population on the environment.
  • Conduct a meta-analysis of multiple local-scale studies on aging, environmental impacts, ancillary transportation, energy, infrastructure, etc. to determine if there are certain factors that are common among all or most of these local scale issues.
    • Conduct current and future vulnerability analyses, as well as alternative futures analyses.
    • Develop a matrix that cross references issues, scale, information sources, models, and other pertinent information.
  • Conduct an assessment to identify the specific actions that could be taken to prevent or mitigate the effects associated with the aging population.
  • Conduct a business model analysis to establish the links between the aging demographic, the economy and the environment.
    • Consider the effects of current regulations and policies on new and in-filling development that cater to older adults in the context of the EPA Smart Growth Initiative.
  • Evaluation of the impact of an aging society on the environment and the interaction between the environment and the health of older adults will require identification of valid environmental and health indicators to establish potential associations.
  • This work should be carried out on a scale that is appropriate to evaluate the effects of the incorporation of SmartGrowth policies into local and regional planning.

Research Goals

  • The Aging Demographic and Environmental
    • The aging of the U.S. population represents a long-term shift in the U.S. demographic profile.
    • The Aging population is diverse − socio-economically, ethnically and racially with widely varying attitudes and beliefs.
    • About 90% of aging adults will age in place.
    • The other 10% plans to move to areas that promote active lifestyles, typically in fragile environments.
    • Older Americans tend to migrate down the “metropolitan hierarchy”.
    • Aging adults are transferring their finances from income to asset management.
  • To protect, sustain, or restore the health of people, communities, or ecosystems using integrated and comprehensive approaches and partnerships, EPA needs to:
    • Assure that humans are included as part of the ecosystem.
    • Improve risk assessment and management through demographic and population movement pattern analysis.
    • Develop and document the process for conducting assessments of the changing demographic and life-style patterns on the environment.


Del Webb. 2003. Baby boomer report -- annual opinion survey. Pulte Homes, Inc., Del Webb and the Baby Boomer Report.

Department of Health and Human Services. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 2003. Trends in aging -- United States and worldwide. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Vol. 52. No. 6.

Frey, William H. 2003. Boomers and seniors in the suburbs: aging patterns in Census 2000. The Brookings Institution, Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy, the Living Census Series.

Longino, C.F., Perzynksi, A.T. and Stoller, E.P. 2002. Pandora’s briefcase: unpacking the retirement migration decision, Research on Aging. 24, 29-49.

Longino, C.F., Jr. and Fox, R.A. 1995. Retirement migration in America: an analysis of the size, trends, and economic impact of the country’s newest growth industry. Vacation Publications, Inc.

Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc. for AARP. 2004. Baby boomers envision their retirement II: survey of baby boomers’ expectations for retirement.

Tonn, B., Waidely, G., and Petrich, C. 2001. The aging U.S. population and environmental policy. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management. 44(6), 851-876.

U.S. EPA. 2004. Proceedings of the Aging Americans: Impacts on Ecology and Environmental Quality Workshop. In print.

Wackernagel, M. and Rees, W.R. 1996. Our ecological footprint: reducing human impact on the Earth. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, B.C.

Wright, S. 1999. The FANBY dynamic: The potential and future of retirement “hot spots” in the West. Sustainable Communities Review. 3, 6-11.

Wright, S., and Lund, D. 2000. Grey and green? Stewardship and sustainability in an aging society. Journal of Aging Studies. 14, 229-249.

Ecological research at EPA is structured around the ecological risk assessment process: